There’s a cliché that says the backup quarterback is always the most popular guy on a team.

However the fans who called for rookie Bruce Gradkowski to take the reigns from Chris Simms after his poor performance in the first two games of the season were the same ones who cheered when Gradkowski was benched for Tim Rattay in game 13 against Atlanta. That’s why fans aren’t consulted in personnel issues or asked to vote, mid-game, on which player to play.

No, typically that’s a responsibility shared by the head coach and the team’s general manager. Why then did neither Jon Gruden nor Bruce Allen take the means necessary to solidify the team’s quarterback position heading into the 2006 season?

The words came from Gruden’s mouth several times this year – winning games in this league begins with quality play at the quarterback position. Yet, in mid-December the Bucs had a journeyman with questionable ability sharing snaps with a sixth-round rookie draft pick. It was an issue that Allen could not avoid at his press conference on Friday.

First, he was asked if he had made a mistake by not re-signing veteran Brian Griese after the 2005 season. Then came questions as to why Gradkowski started in front of Rattay. To all of which Allen answered vaguely.

“In the NFL, hindsight isn’t 20/20. It really is 20/40 because you can’t anticipate different things,” Allen said. “Do I wish the team I was with drafted Tom Brady in the fifth round before New England took him in the sixth? Absolutely. But what would have occurred? Do you think he would have won three Super Bowls? What if he didn’t have Adam Vinatieri on the team? You can’t really go back and say something is black and white in the NFL.”

Allen said Griese simply made the decision to take Chicago’s offer over the Bucs’ and suggested that Griese may have wished he didn’t given the amount of playing time he could have had in Tampa Bay this season. But that came down to a matter of how much the Bucs valued him and thought they would need his services. Apparently, more than they anticipated.

At his season-ending press conference Friday, Allen said 2005 was the last year of dealing with the salary cap hell that has plagued the team since the Super Bowl, and the Bucs didn’t have as many options available. At that point, Allen and Gruden felt safe with Simms, Rattay and Luke McCown, whom they had traded a sixth-round pick to Cleveland for in 2005. Plus, they were looking into the draft at the time.

The only problem was that McCown went down to a knee injury in mini-camp and Simms ruptured his spleen in Week 3, incidents Allen couldn’t have foreseen.

When Gradkowski threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Joey Galloway on the first drive of his first start in New Orleans, many Bucs fans had shades of Brady floating through their pewter tinted glasses. Understandably so, but a little more than halfway through the season it became obvious the kid who threw for five touchdowns in a 45-13 win over UTEP in the 2005 GMAC Bowl was still just a kid in terms of NFL experience.

Rattay, who had seven years in the league and 16 starts under his belt, wasn’t even in the conversation until a horrid performance by Gradkowski at Pittsburgh in December. The forgotten quarterback almost led the Bucs back from 24-3 deficit at Chicago two weeks later and then won his first start at Cleveland. He finished the year with a team-high 88.2 passer rating after playing in three games.
 
When pressed as to whether he thought keeping Rattay on the bench for so long was a mistake on Gruden’s part, Allen said: “I’m not going to [say]; I’m going to look at it from a different perspective. I’m more interested in what we’re going to do in 2007. We all will learn from the mistakes of 2006.”

“So, going with Gradkowski was a mistake. Is that what you’re saying?” asked one reporter.

“No, I’m not saying that,” Allen responded. “I said I’m going to address 2007 and 2008 and 2009. I wasn’t here for Coach Gruden’s [press conference], I don’t know if he did an interview; I’m not going to get into that type of dialogue.”

During his press conference, Allen identified two main reasons for the downfall of the team in 2005, and both revolved around the quarterback.

"Clearly, this season, you look at it, there's two really poor performances by us: Our quarterback position performed poorly," Allen said. "And our defensing the quarterback position performed poorly." 

Tampa Bay's quarterback trio of Simms, Gradkowski and Rattay combined for a QB rating of 66.2. Opposing quarterbacks generated a QB rating of 91. 

It goes without saying that one of the Bucs’ greatest concerns, if not the greatest, is finding a healthy and reliable quarterback in the offseason. One who can provide stability to the position and “be great” according to Gruden. Whether that player is on the roster now is not known.

With what Allen said was $24 million dollars to spend in cap space and no less than the draft’s No. 4 pick, there should be an opportunity to at least bring in a quality quarterback to compete for the job. But how much of a priority is it to have a veteran quarterback brought in?
 
“We have our list on the quarterbacks and I think it’s probably different from the free agency list, though it includes some of those players,” Allen said. “We have some other players we think will come available. We saw 10 quarterback changes this year, and we anticipate there will be 10 changes next year. So I think you’re going to see a lot of movement.”
 
Will there be movement here, in Tampa Bay? Allen declined to further speculate on that, saying only that they had their list.
            
With the lump of salary cap money traditionally devoted to the defensive side of the ball, it would seem likely a change might be coming.

For the sake of his own job as well as Gruden’s, it’s not hard to imagine bringing in an NFL veteran with experience running the West Coast offense to challenge Simms, who just signed a two-year contract extension that included a $3 million signing bonus. Philadelphia’s Jeff Garcia is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, and Denver is expected to release Jake Plummer, who played in Mike Shanahan’s version of the West Coast offense. Both players could interest the Buccaneers.

But with news coming in later Friday that Gruden and his staff would be invited to coach this year’s Senior Bowl in Alabama, there is always the chance that the offensive-minded coach falls in love with a quarterback and Ohio State’s Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith will be there, as will Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn.

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